View of Slate Run Gorge
In some respects, it all started here. I had only been hiking for two or three years when I decided to give backpacking a try. It was July, 1998. I met Lou, a friend from college, at the trail. I was living in Ohio at the time and Lou was in New Jersey, so the Black Forest Trail (BFT) was half-way for the both of us. A quick search on the internet, which did exist in 1998, revealed the BFT was one of the state’s most scenic trails. It seemed to be the right choice.
But I was woefully unprepared. My roommate at the time had backpacked and he let me borrow his tent. I bought a pack, used water filter, and sleeping bag, even though I had little money for such purchases. I brought heavy cans of tuna for food, a horrible choice for backpacking. The hip belt of the pack felt so foreign and uncomfortable around my waist, I didn’t even use it. The pack seemed to crush me as I trudged up the mountain. I thought to myself, “what the hell am I doing out here?” Despite the pain and sweat, it felt right. I reached the top to see an amazing view looking up and down Slate Run’s gorge. It was worth it. I knew why I was on the trail. We would hike five or so more miles to camp along Red Run with its small cascades and waterfalls. Setting up the tent for the first time felt like figuring out a jigsaw puzzle. The scenery was serene and beautiful, with deep green forests and pristine streams. I felt I was stepping into some alternate world, unknown from roads and car windows. This world hinted at being more beautiful than I had ever experienced before.
Night soon came and the forest became fused into absolute darkness, but I slept well with the sound of the creek. Morning arrived and I was half-surprised I was still alive, perfectly fine without a bed, a house, or modern conveniences. Nothing ate me. No bears, snakes, or rabid raccoons were to be found. We continued on the trail, passing a waterfall and crossing streams. We climbed to a forest road with a view looking up the gorge. Lou took my picture. I still have it. I looked young and fresh-faced as the green mountains rose behind me. We never really knew how much of the trail we wanted to do; it was clear we would have to shorten the trip. We took a side trail up a rocky glen and rejoined the BFT. We then did something new backpackers never do, and which portended my future. We bushwhacked, to shorten the hike and reach a different section of the BFT sooner. Lou obediently followed me off trail down a glen covered with stinging nettle. It was hell. Lou courageously endured the torture with a few choice curse words. With the ensuing years, I would take many more friends on bushwhacks, and their reactions have at times been similar.
We found the BFT for a third time and walked down the bottom of a gorge with a nice stream and campsites. A tortuous steep climb followed. At the top was a side trail to an ancient hemlock tree, but we decided to skip it. The trail took us along a ridge with views to the left and right of the green plateaus and steep ridges down into the Pine Creek Gorge. Our time on the BFT came to a close and we followed a side trail down into Slate Run. We camped along the stream our last night. I took a photo looking up Slate Run as the sun set through the mid summer haze, showing the slope of the mountain washed with fading light. I still have it. I heard something walk in the water from the safety of my tent, Lou exclaimed it sounded like a bear and I couldn’t disagree. Regardless, we easily survived another night. The next day we ate at the old Hotel Manor, an ancient log cabin structure. A cheeseburger was $1.50 and a Yuengling Lager was 50 cents. Our first backpacking trip came to a close. Lou and I drove our separate ways.
The years passed. I continued to hike and backpack, and ended up writing six books. I would hike on various trails from Florida to Maine. The Hotel Manor burned down, to be replaced by a much larger, modern, and stylish restaurant. Lou would move to Montana. I would return to the BFT two more times, but I never returned to the section I hiked. I’m not sure why. I intended to hike the trail in 2008, but I put it off. Maybe I didn’t want to return to where I began. Maybe I felt I wouldn’t recapture the joy of my first hike, becoming more cynical and “worldly” with age. Daily routines distracted me from this chapter from my past, and I didn’t feel the motivation or need to revisit. After all, what could it really teach or show me?
This past Labor Day weekend, I decided to return and hike the entire trail. I would measure myself and my experience to that of 17 years ago. Which changed more- the trail or I?
I arrived late, reaching the parking area at 5 pm. I set a goal- to hike 42 miles in 48 hours. The trail passed behind the new Hotel Manor with people eating on the wide deck overlooking the beautiful Pine Creek and several fly-fishermen stood in the water. The weather was extremely hot, and I should have brought more food. I crossed a new footbridge over Slate Run and returned to the trail I last set foot on almost two decades ago. I moved quickly, as sweat soaked my clothes. I soon reached a group of three backpackers- two young men and a woman. They had big packs and sleeping pads still in their shrink-wrapped plastic. We talked for a bit, I found it ironic that this was their first backpacking trip, and told them that this was also my first trail. I told them there were great views ahead, even though I hadn’t been to them in so many years. They asked questions about backpacking and other trails, I suggested the Old Loggers Path and the Loyalsock Trail. One of them seemed proud to now be a backpacker, explaining he had only ever dayhiked before. I found their excitement and wonder refreshing; it was like running into myself all those years ago. I reached the fine views over Slate Run, as the setting sun glowed over the gorge. I pushed on, passing more hikers. I reached the top as the trail explored beautiful forests. A dead skunk lied still on the trail, the reason for its fate a mystery as flies buzzed. The trail became more brushy as twilight fell. I reached another beautiful view and traversed large rocks. As the forest became dark I reached the view above Red Run and camped nearby. I ate a little at the view, looking into darkness. In a matter of hours I covered a similar distance that took me much of the day to hike 17 years ago. I was fine by myself in the wilderness, camping alone. Fear had been replaced with experience. I left the fly off my tent to sleep under the stars, but the night was misty, and the trees gathered water that dripped down on me. I woke in the middle of the night to cover the tent.
Morris Run Falls
The morning arrived with fog, I got a slow start, hoping the sky would clear at the nearby view, but it didn’t. I got my gear together like clockwork and soon made the rugged descent into Red Run with its boulders and cascades. I passed campsites along Red Run and I saw a couple eating breakfast. I rushed passed the campsite we used on the first hike. The falls of Morris Run soon greeted me and I crossed Slate Run. A climb brought me to the view where Lou took a picture of me. The scene was the same, but this time I continued on the BFT. The trail climbed through beautiful misty forests with ground pine and laurel. I passed more backpacking groups, everyone was friendly, but I seemed to be one of the few doing the whole trail due to the heat. The skies cleared, offering great views of the gorges and plateaus with deep green forests. The trail was easy and pleasant through the forests. I passed two hikers from Canada. Despite all the people on the trail, it didn’t feel crowded as I went miles without seeing anyone.
I crossed PA 44 and descended along County Line Branch with a gorgeous trail of pine and spruce. Numerous campsites were on soft pine needles. The trail crossed the creek many times, but the scenery was superb. The creek and valley widened, and the isolation increased. I crossed the creek one last time and saw another couple backpacking, enjoying this serene spot. He was fly fishing and said he caught a small brook trout, she was picking through rocks and pebbles. This, I thought, was a place I needed to return. A steep climb followed with rhododendron. The trail parsed meadows and offered more views along an arid ridge. I passed more backpackers and descended into another valley followed by another climb. I had to ration my food and it was tough to keep hydrated. I pushed on. I crossed PA 44 again, with the hope to camp along Callihan Run. Views of the mountains and gorges continued, including one of Hemlock Mountain, which I would climb tomorrow. A steep descent into Callihan Run brought high humidity I could feel against my skin. Even my aluminum poles felt slick with water. An outing group from Penn State camped near a turn in the trail. I missed the blaze and followed the obvious grade all the way down to Pine Creek where two woman were camping. They showed me my mistake and I was soon hiking fast back up the grade to get to the BFT. I found a campsite and set up my tent in the dark. I washed off in the frigid creek and went without supper. I hiked about 23 miles and my body ached. Insects buzzed and chirped through the night. My last day remained and it would be the most difficult due to the terrain and heat, forecasted to be the hottest day. I knew it was going to be a challenge. I tried to get as much rest as I could as the sound of the cascading creek filled the dark forest.
View over County Line Branch
I woke early and was on the trail before 7 am. The climb along a dry stream exhausted me, but the cool, green hemlock forests were beautiful. The sun was fighting through the mist, creating heavenly light. Three deer were resting on the trail and bolted through the laurel when I came upon them. I climbed up to Hemlock Mountain to see its amazing views above the clouds, embedded in the gorge below. It looked like a giant glacier or ice covered lake. A large group of hikers were at the view, taking it all in. The rising sun illuminated the clouds into blinding white, as the green mountains rose above them. The clouds rolled and feathered in a slow current as it warmed and began to dissipate under the sun. A remarkable sight. The descent from Hemlock Mountain was long and steep. But the hemlock forests were mysterious and dark in the mist. I reached Naval Run, a beautiful stream with sides and pools. The trail followed a grade high up the deep gorge filled with fallen trees from a windstorm.
I crossed the creek above Naval Run Falls, now reduced to a mossy trickle. A brutal climb followed and I fought to get uphill through the heat. The windblown forest offered some views. I returned to the point Lou and I left the BFT and enjoyed the same views. They seemed to make more of an impression on me this time, the difference between seeing them in person as compared to old 4×6 prints. I was tired and I was running low on food. Whether I wanted to or not, this had to be my last day. I made my way down a glen, only to climb to the side trail to the ancient hemlock that Lou and I bypassed. The sign to the tree was splintered and weathered, barely able to convey its intended message. I decided to skip it again, to save it for a future trip.
View from Hemlock Mountain
I climbed in and out of gorges, high above streams and through a sun-dappled forest. I was exhausted, taking breaks to regain my energy. I was soon left with a cracker and some Skittles. Did I subconsciously try to sabotage this hike, or seek to test myself further than I needed? Was I out to prove to my younger self how strong and formidable I believed I was now? My stomach didn’t care, as it craved food.
Pine Creek Gorge
I passed a cabin with a small, clear pond and soon I was descending back to Slate Run, passing a view of the gorge. The descent became very steep and soon I was at one of the trail’s finest views. It is not at the highest point, but down halfway into the gorge, offering a panorama of mountains and ridges and glens that surrounded me. I sat to take it in. The wind whispered through the expanse of air held by mountains. Slate Run babbled through a meadow far below.
I neared the end of the trail and decided to go down to the old campsite where Lou and I stayed the second night. My hope was to take a photo looking upstream like I had 17 years ago. The small sycamores in the old photo had now grown and crowded out the view, concealing the mountains. The view was no longer the same. The trail had changed, and so had I.
Pushing myself to move, I completed the hike just after 5 pm. I hiked 44 miles in 48 hours, 42 of those miles on the trail itself. I walked down to Pine Creek and washed off in the cool, clean water as the warm sun baked my sweat-stained skin. Other backpackers were putting gear in their cars. I hobbled into my car, as aches rippled through my body. I drove off, going my separate way as a setting sun cast the gorges, glens, and mountains of the Black Forest Trail into twilight.